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Hila Harary
Zeitgeist at your service

When zeitgeist of white-collar swap with the blue

Berry Sakharof (Israeli mega rock-star) released the hit “Slaves” in 1998, which became a cult hit in Israel. If you listen carefully to the words you will recognize that even back then he was well describing us as addicted zombies (“We sat on the aspirin river … soon the movie will come to an end, soon the reality, the picture is blurry and the sound is not clear”), replaceable (“The shop-window are pretty here / that’s all for sale / we are also hung / with gift certificate’ notes”) workaholics who want to be free, but it is not yet clear from what, and even if we manage to break free from the addiction, it is only until we swallow the next bait (“everyone wants to be free / but what from, god / because we are all slaves / that we have one like / we open our big mouth / and wait for the next pleasure / we are all addicted to someone / who wants us to feel now / open our big mouth / and wait for the next dish/dose”).

“When Things Fall Apart” is a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron that I heard about in some thread last year. The person who recommended it said the book helped him deal with a difficult period in his life. After hearing about it, I went to one of the largest book stores’ website in Israel and found out it was out of stock. Since then I was intrigued, and have entered the website a few more times to check, and it’s been already several times this year that this book, out of all possible books, has simply run out. Maybe this is not really surprising as many people have felt since the beginning of the pandemic that at least one facet in their lives is falling apart and needed tools and advice on how to deal with the difficulties they experienced.

If we leave aside for a moment the health crisis and loss of life, many people have experienced since the beginning of Covid a career crisis which led to rethinking about their lives, how they spend their time, with whom, and on what. Perhaps what can shed light on this disillusionment is the new phrase coined in Covid: “essential employees”. Noreen Malone writes in The New York Times that the term was used cynically when alongside medical staff, Amazon warehouse workers, cashiers, and Wolt couriers found themselves risking their lives, while marketers write marketing reports from home and get a lot more money for it in most cases. And while the “essential employees” risked their lives, the non-essential employees were left with work itself, at home, and without the coffee breaks, shared lunches, and customer meetings, many people disliked what they discovered when work was just work itself, and they found themselves asking: we spent between eight to ten hours a day at least, five days a week for this??? Could it be that the work is just a demanding job and only because of that we missed quality time with our loved ones?

The result of this disillusionment was named the “Great Resignation” (an estimated 25 million Americans left their jobs in the second half of 2021) which created a plot twist: many resigning are at the bottom of the revenue scale, creating demand for these workers and allowing them to act like white collars and look for a better job at a higher wage. Along with the latter, there are also millions who have simply left the workforce because they are sick or need to take care of someone at home, or – because they are simply miserable. Following the release of the employment report in February, one economist at the Labor Ministry described it as “the most complicated employment report ever,” and the picture continues to get complicated as we dive into higher-wage workers’ resignation data.

Noreen Malone wrote an exemplary article, there is no point in reinventing it so I bring in this post the best of it, it is one of the most important and excellent ones you will read in the near future that will give you a broad picture of the future of work. The original piece is very long, and yet for those interested – the link to the full article is at the end of this post.

The writer Anne Helen Petersen, recently wrote a book about professional-class burnout based on a viral 2019 BuzzFeed article she wrote on the same subject. I was in a particularly stressful moment of a management job at the time and would Google the symptoms of burnout late at night, on a private browser screen. But I was allergic to people talking ostentatiously about it, and I was embarrassed by the indulgence of the language, or, maybe, what I saw as the self-importance of it. Now, though, it’s as if our whole society is burned out. The pandemic may have alerted new swaths of people to their distaste for their jobs – or exhausted them past the point where there’s anything to enjoy about jobs they used to like.

Perhaps that’s why the press is filled with stories about widespread employee dissatisfaction; last month an Insider article declared that companies “are actively driving their white-collar workers away by presuming that employees are still thinking the way they did before the pandemic: that their jobs are the most important things in their lives,”

At Amazon, in its managerial ranks, employee departures have reached what is being seen as a “crisis” level, according to Bloomberg’s Brad Stone. (A source told him that the turnover rate was as high as 50% in some groups, although Amazon disputes this). One woman, leaving her job, posted in an internal listserv she started called Momazonian, which has more than 5,000 members. “While it has been an incredibly rewarding place to work, the pressure often feels relentless and at times, unnecessary,” she wrote, in a Jerry Maguire screed for the careful networker set; she also copied senior vice presidents and some board members.

I will skip over some numbers from the article on the burnout and retreat of women from the labor market, but I will mention that the participation of women in the labor market is at a low of 33 years. (My addition – the former VP of the Employment Service in Israel recently told Calcalist that a significant part of this phenomenon is the unwillingness of mothers, who in the last two years have been much more with the children at home, to return to full-time positions in the office. There’s a wish for more balance at work, mothers are looking for part-time jobs which are more convenient for raising the children. It’s something post-corona of wanting to be with the children and not run after work. This phenomenon is worrying. To some extent the corona brought the women back home”, and I say the situation is not correctly understood. Here we see a new revolution, something is not working and the preference of those mothers has changed, and accordingly, more part-time jobs and more flexibility in jobs should be created and applied – both in hours and location – because that is where the market goes in general). And similar to this setback, the latest data on U.S. happiness shows that since the outbreak of the pandemic, Americans’ happiness has plunged, and for the first time since the survey – exactly 50 years ago – more people in the U.S. say they are not happy than those who say they are.

So the numbers are bad enough. But then there’s the way the hard facts of the economy interact with our emotions. Consider this theory: that the current office ennui was simply the inevitable backlash to the pushing culture of the previous decade’s #ThankGodIt’sMonday culture. And furthermore, sometimes around the rise of #MeToo (and after Donald Trump’s election), ambition began to seem like a mug’s game. The enormous personal costs og getting to the top became clear, and the potential warping effects of being in charge also did. It wasn’t just the bad sexually harassing bosses who were fired but the toxic ones, too, and soon enough we began to question the whole way power in the office worked. What started out as a hopeful moment turned depressing fast. Power structures were interrogated but rarely dismantled, a middle ground that left everyone feeling pretty bad about the ways of the world. It became harder to trust anyone who was your boss and harder to imagine wanting to become one. Covid was an accelerant, but the match was already lit.

The plague, the death, the supply chain, long lines at the post office, and the collapse of many aspects of civil society might all play a role in that statistic. But in his classic 1951 study of the office-working middle class, the sociologist C. Wright Mills observed that “while the modern white-collar worker has no articulate philosophy of work, his feelings about it and his experiences of it influence his satisfactions and frustrations, the whole tone of his life”. I remember a friend once saying that although her husband wasn’t depressed, he hated his job, and it was effectively like living with a depressed person.

It’s not in just the data where the words “job satisfaction” seem to have become a paradox. It’s also present in the cultural mood about work. Not long ago, a young editor I follow on Instagram posted a response to a question someone posted to her: What’s your dream job? Her reply, a snappy internet-screwball comeback, was that she did not “dream of labor”. I suspect that she is ambitious. I know that she is excellent at understanding the zeitgeist.

It is in the air, this anti-ambition. These days, it’s easy to go viral. “Sex is great, but have you ever quit a job that was ruining your mental health?” went one tweet, which has more than 300,000 likes. Or: “I hope this email doesn’t find you. I hope you’ve escaped, that you’re free” (168,000 likes). If the tight labor market is giving low-wage workers a taste of upward mobility, a lot of office workers (or “office”, these days) seem to be thinking about our jobs more like the way many working-class people have forever. As just a job, a paycheck to take care of the bills! Not the sum total of us, not an identity.

Even elite lawyers seem to be losing their taste for workplace gunning. Last year, Reuters reported an unusual wave of attrition at big firms in New York City – noting that many of the lawyers had decided to take a pay cut to work fewer hours or move to a cheaper area, or work in tech. It’s happening in finance, too: At Citi, according to New York magazine, an analyst typed “I hate this job, I hate this bank, I want to jump out the window” in a chat, prompting human resources to check on his mental health. “This is a consensus opinion,” he explained to HR “This is how everyone feels.”

Things get weird when employers try to address this discontent. Amazon’s warehouse workers have, for the past year, been asked to participate in a wellness program aimed at reducing on-the-job injuries. The company recently came under fire for the reporting that some of its drivers are pushed so hard to perform that they’ve taken to urinating in bottles, and warehouse employees, for whom every move is tracked, live in fear of being fired for working too slowly. But now, for those warehouse workers, Amazon has introduced a program called AmaZen: “Employees can visit AmaZen stations and watch short videos featuring easy-to-follow well-being activities, including guided meditations [and] positive affirmations.” It’s self-care with a dystopian bent, in which the solution for blue-collar job burnout is… screen time.

Confronted with this world, many young people with professional options want to be in solidarity with their colleagues instead of climbing the ladder above them. The meaning that they once found in work is now found in trying to make the workplace itself better. (My addition – I have previously reviewed the German company Einhorn leading a new trend of a company without a hierarchy, which allows such solidarity, and there are several other such companies, including here in Israel).

Later in the article, examples are given of expressing solidarity and attempts to form unions, as heard in news coverage of Amazon, Starbucks, a digital news site, Google, and more. The “professional-managerial classes” – as Bernie Sanders supports called that slice of the white-collar workforce pejoratively – are in the middle of developing a class consciousness.

The very first sentence of the book “What do people do all day?” by Richard Scarry explains what’s happening: “We all live in Busytown and we are all workers. We work hard so that there will be enough food and houses and clothing for our families.”

So welcome to the age of anti-ambition: history seems to be repeating itself in the work world as white-collar workers have adopted the blue-collar workers’ mindset, and the question is which organizations will understand this first and how they will react on it.

The following quote from Bernard Shaw appears in Wikiquote: “In our time slavery has reached its peak in the form of wages.” Perhaps this is the place to point out that in Hebrew the word ‘labor’ comes from the root ‘slave’. It seems that even white-collar workers who were very ambitious and enslaved to their work in the past (not to mention addicted) and derived much enjoyment from their work, draw conclusions and change their behavior and attitude towards their workplaces. Keep in mind that for many employees it is a real identity crisis, because work was our entire life (and some of them may be looking for the book that ran out – “When things fall apart”), and now it is the turn of companies and organizations to change their way of thinking and adapt to the new reality to significantly reduce their employees’ burnout so they can retain their human capital.

Who will be the innovative companies that will invent (or adopt) new models of employment? Who will shorten the workweek to 4 days without waiting for regulation, and what other steps would you like to see companies take to retain employees?

Hope you enjoyed the freedom of the Passover holiday 😉

In the video – Berry Sakharof sing “Slaves” in a 20-year performance for his popular record. It happened in early 2019 – symbolically – shortly before the pandemic that changed our consciousness about work. Hear the crowd sing. Cult, have I already mentioned it?

About the Author
Hila is a trendologist (future forecaster) @ Tectonic Shift & a social entrepreneur. In parallel to building her own venture, she's helping b2b companies, governments, and organizations with their biz dev and creative marketing strategies, using trends and content, and has a great specialization on the German market.
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